Business Analyst tools stink, part 2

This blog was originally posted to the blog on January 13, 2010.

This is part 2 of a 2 part series on the state of BA tools. Be sure to check out part 1 before reading this entry.

Productivity Suite Landscaping

The typical office productivity suite has a multitude of applications that all do different things and provide different value to the user. Each of these tools has their uses, but the uses are broken up into different applications with different file formats. If I want to put a graphic file into the middle of a text document, I have to first create the graphic in a different application, save it to file and then import it into the the document processing application. To me, these is a needless set of steps. Why can I not just create a new graphic file from within my text document?

Lets look at a listing of common applications found in productivity suites and I think you’ll start to see some overlap and similarities here:

Microsoft Office
Open Office
iWork / iLife
Word Processing
Document Publishing


Image Manipulation


Note Taking


Task Management

When you get down to it, in each category there are really only two types of applications. First, we have our layout oriented applications. Word processing, document publishing, presentations, image manipulation, email, note taking and diagrams are all examples of this type of application. You start out with a blank ‘canvas’, add in elements of text, images, lines, shapes, etc, and eventually you have a fully formed document.

Second are what I call 'cell’ layouts. The idea with these is that you have discrete elements of data that you want to quantify and classify. Spreadsheets, task management and database applications all fall into this category.

Making it all Better

Because they have the most robust office quite, I am going to use Microsoft Office as an example of how I would go about leveraging the technology that already exists within their company to invent the office suite of the future. Its not that the other suites don’t have the same problems (or problems of equal or greater stature), but most of us are more familiar with it than the other suites available in the marketplace.

The first change I would make is to ditch the separate applications and create a single base application framework. Instead of opening up each different application to do a specific function, the user would now open up Office. From there, the system would prompt if they want to open an existing file or create a new one from a set of templates. If the user selects the template option, they would then be presented with several different options which roughly corresponds to the individual applications of previous Office products.

Depending upon which type of document the user is working on, the Ribbon interface would display or hide specific sections. If the open document is just doing word processing, then the sections that correspond to Word would be displayed. If the open document is a set of data residing in the file system, then the Excel tabs would be displayed. If the open document is word processing, but has embedded table layouts, then the displayed sections would be a combination of both Word and Excel tabs.

My next change would be to the file structure itself. No more do we have .docx, .xlsx and the various different formats by application, but we have a single, unified file format. This .offx file is nothing more than a zip file with the existing file formats embedded and linked within it. This would not only save all of us hard drive space, but would allow for easier movement of files between different sources. This way, if you have a movie file linked to a document, when one file moves, they both move.

Lastly, I would make three additional integration enhancements:
  • Enhanced document revisioning = Give me something akin to Apple’s Time Machine, but within a document. I need to be able to run backwards and forwards through a document and see exactly how it changed and who made the changes.
  • Enhanced autosave = If you haven’t tried Google docs, do so for this one feature. If you make one additional keystroke within a document, it is immediately saved. Never again do you need to worry about losing a document if the power goes out. Why this isn’t implemented in non-web office suites is a complete mystery to me.
  • Collaboration = Office does allow for a limited amount of collaboration, something that Microsoft is currently enhancing, but it generally requires a centralized server to perform this work. Because all changes would be autosaved to the document, a specialized server is not really necessary for each editor to be instantly aware of changes another editor makes, in real time. This is another way in which Google Docs outpaces Microsoft’s offering (although in all fairness, there is no real 'client’ application with Google, its all server).
That leaves us with the problem of default settings. From a technical standpoint, this would be easy to change, but I feel it is honestly the more difficult problem to fix, namely because most people don’t see it as a problem. Sure, they may not be pleased with the limitations enforced by an 8.5x11 piece of paper, but have they ever really thought about why those limitations are even there? I cannot tell you how many of my customers and even how many of my managers have been tied to a physical piece of paper and liked it; couldn’t get enough of it. For our tools to truly improve and mature, this mentality must go.